The Death of Wireframes? Or the rebirth of actually talking to each other again…

by Joan Vermette on September 25, 2009

I invented wireframes. Okay, clearly I didn’t – you can read Whitney Hess on the history of using wireframes for application and web design – but back in the day (mid- to late-90s) when I started out, we didn’t blog or tweet every twenty seconds like we do now, or have as many networks or conferences, and I fended for myself with regards to work tools.

So, all on my own, I used my head and came up with the idea of using low-fidelity PowerPoint sketches to flesh out ideas for chunking out information, for how many pages there would be, and what would be the right content and controls to go on each of them. The point was to do low-fi, low cost, quick turnaround stuff that would get stakeholders focused on the story and the deep structure before the details. And it was easy to try different features and to render them in different ways, just by knocking those little boxes around in PowerPoint.

Then many times I’d work with a visual designer and/or prototyper to work out those details — iterating in response to stakeholder feedback, which went remarkably smoother than it would have done if we’d started with a high level of detail from the get-go.

And so after a few years of being a project IA, I moved on to create a style guide and become an internal consultant in my group, and then to do the same for our European affiliates. When I came home after that — back to project work — I was astounded at what wireframes had become in the seven years since I’d first promoted their use. They were essentially fully rendered (though grayscale) screen designs, and they were done in Visio — which to me is as easy to use as if you’d asked me to render my screen designs as hand embroidery. And the wireframes were the sole province of the IA and the stakeholders — visual design had become a process of washing over them with digital gouache, like the relationship between cartooning and inking. God forbid the visual designer should think that this dropdown menu would have better emphasis in the center than on the right, or that given the data density on the page, that box should not be shaded or have a border, or be a box.

And what’s with cutting your own design partners out of the process of understanding why the stuff on the page is there in the first place? And what’s with having three people — an IA, a visual designer, and a prototyper labor at the same level of detail on the same screens, but separately and in different media? Is that not entirely wasteful and crazy?

And so when at the end of Leah Buley’s SXSW ’09 presentation on being a UX Team of One she casually said that “wireframes are on their way out,’ I felt my heart fill with glee. However wedded I am to the word “wireframe,” what I mean by it is a low-cost, low-fidelity sketch that is a conversation piece — a way to have a conversation about story, audience, priority, structure, content and features. It is totally throwaway object, meant only to bring the screens and their interactions to fruition.

See Leah Buley’s wonderful UX Team of One presentation on her site, Leah Buley is an experience designer at Adaptive Path.

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